South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Developing theory

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The greatest obstacle to women confronting the issue of sexual abuse by women is the belief that this challenges feminism. Kelly (1991, p. 15) argues that 'feminist analysis of men's violence is only fragile if it is underpinned by essentialism: the belief that aggression is inherent in men. Masculinity and femininity are culturally and historically variable constructs which individuals fit more or less comfortably'. A structural analysis of society examines the use of force and coercion to maintain power, whether the source of that power is gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical or mental health. This force is frequently socially legitimated. A structural analysis provides the tools to explore women's access to and use of violence, but this exploration has been largely avoided. Following this argument, 'the most likely targets for violence by women are children; the only social group over which women have socially legitimated power' (Kelly 1991, p. 15). The sexual realm is an area of power for men. Women acting out violently, sexually, are acting out against the social construction of femininity, against all expectations, hence the outrage attached to female perpetrators of' sexual abuse.

Young (1993) argues that an analysis of power is only a partial solution to understanding sexual abuse by women while validating all feminist claims about the position of women in society. She asserts that some women, within the limited power that they have, can be 'abusive, vicious, cruel, possessive, domineering, violent, manipulative, aggressive, dishonest, self-deceptive, and criminal' (Young 1993, p. 14). While this is behaviour may be a reaction to patriarchal oppression, we need to ensure that our theory does not excuse adult women from responsibility for their actions.

To those who argue that because some women abuse children sexually we should now consider gender to be irrelevant and ask, instead 'Why do people do it?' I offer Carol Anne Hooper's (1989, p. 26) telling response: 'Would anyone argue that because both men and women do housework, gender is irrelevant in either its distribution and meaning? But this must not be used as an argument to avoid the evidence of sexual abuse by women. If we continue to do so, we are open to accusations by survivors that we will not listen. We will silence children and leave the ground vacant for anti-feminist theory and practice. It is possible to recognise that some women abuse sexually, without losing sight of the fact that the majority of sexual abusers are men. It is then feasible to explore that which is common and different between sexual abuse by men and women and consider whether the understanding we have of male sexual abuse is relevant to women.

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